Emigration: and the family came too


We often think of emigration in terms of individuals only, but it’s a whole new world when a young family has to be taken into account

When Michael and Barbara Reidy won tickets to the Working Abroad Expo at the RDS in Dublin last March, they went along to research the possibilities of moving abroad.

But they never expected Michael to be offered a job on the spot, with a company supplying machine parts to mines in central Canada. Five months later, after a whirlwind of agonising and paperwork, they and their five children were transplanted from the Co Wexford village of Bree, to the city of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan.

“It is not something we would have chosen to do at this stage of our lives,” explains Barbara (41). But business was slow at the company Michael worked for – “every Friday you would have your heart in your mouth that he wouldn’t be laid off” – so they decided this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

“It was more the fear if we didn’t take the job and the company went bust, then we wouldn’t be able to meet the mortgage,” says Barbara. Apart from that, with ongoing cuts, things were getting harder and harder.

Michael intended to go out first, to do the three-month probation. But that got too complicated, and Barbara decided they would all go out immediately.

“To leave at the age of 48 with five children on the strength of one job offer was quite a lot of pressure for Michael,” Barbara acknowledges. “He was bringing seven of us over and he then had to perform at the job and be good enough so they wanted to keep him.”

Emigration after starting a family is very different to heading abroad as a young adult in search of a job, better career prospects or just to see more of the world. For a start there are deeper roots to pull up and more individuals to consider when it comes to the effects of displacement. Parents also have to consider how the move is likely to fundamentally shape – for better or for worse – their children’s lives.

As one Irish couple in their 30s who moved to Seattle in 2010 with their two young children, and are now keen to return, explain: “ just want our kids to be raised Irish”.

“If possible, a strong cultural identity is quite a nice thing to be able to give your child,” says the mother, who asks not to be named because her husband is in the process of seeking a transfer with his current employer.

They had left Ireland with an open mind, when “everything seemed pretty dismal at home”. Although the children have settled in well, the couple don’t want to make the move permanent and acknowledge they are lucky to have that choice.

The best way to break the news to a child about moving depends very much on his or her personality, says psychotherapist Trish Murphy.

“Some children would prefer not to know until it is definite and for others, if you do it like that and it all comes up very quickly, it will be disastrous. So parents really have to trust their judgment.” However, it is difficult, she acknowledges, where there are different personality types in one family but, generally, she advises as much involvement and honesty as possible.

From early on the Reidys told their children, all aged under 10, that Michael had been offered a job in Canada and that they were thinking about it. They felt the children would pick up on conversations in the house.

“Of course they went into school about a week later and said ‘we’re all moving to Canada’ before anything had been said!” laughs Barbara. They showed them YouTube videos of facilities in Saskatoon – big Olympic pools and things like that.

“They were very excited because of the prospect of sunshine, then of snow and even at the fact that we were going on airplane” – none of the children had ever been on an airplane.

Ian Moore (47) went out to work for the Emirates airline in Dubai last September and his wife Joanne (39) and their three children, aged from eight to nearly three, left their home in Stillorgan, Dublin, to join him last month.

“Once we knew that we were definitely emigrating we spoke to the children over dinner about living in a warmer climate and all the positives of being there,” says Joanne. “We showed them photos of things they can do and of our visit in July when we went out for Ian’s interview. They were very keen and exited about heading off.”

The two older children’s classmates gave them farewell cards and class photos as memories to take with them. And as Ian had gone out first, he set up the house and the children’s bedrooms with lots of posters of their favourite characters and their toys and books that had been shipped over, so it looked familiar when the children arrived.

Ciara (eight) and Cathal (six) started in a local British school just four days after landing in Dubai. The longer school day, from 7.45am to 2.50pm, was a bit of a shock. Although Ciara can be shy, she settled in very well and made friends quickly, but Cathal found it harder.

“Cathal really struggled as he had come from a class in Dublin of 29 boys to Dubai where most of his class are girls and only six boys,” says Joanne. “He has missed his old school and cried a lot at night. He treasures a photo taken of his class.”

However, seven weeks on, Cathal is more settled and both children have taken to playing out on the road every evening before tea and on the weekends. “Most of the neighbours are outside chatting whilst their children are playing and it has being a great way for us all to meet people,” adds Joanne.

The first month in Saskatoon was probably the hardest, says Barbara. Some of the children started bed-wetting and there were tantrums and tears.

“It was never tears as in ‘I want to go home’ or ‘I hate it here’, it was always unrelated but obviously all stemming back to what had happened,” she says.

But as soon as the four older children – 10-year-old twins Christopher and Isabel, Benjamin (eight) and Nicholas (six) – started to go to school, just 200 metres across a park from their house, they settled better.

Saskatoon, with a population of 250,000, is “an amazingly child-friendly city with incredible facilities”, says Barbara, a former secondary school teacher. The lovely warm weather when they first arrived in August had turned to snow by Halloween but the children are still enjoying the novelty of snowball fights during break time at school, where the children always go outside unless the temperature drops below minus-25 Celsius.

“I think it is harder for me and Michael than it is for the kids,” says Barbara, who found leaving her mother, as well as siblings, nieces, nephews and friends, very upsetting.

But it is clear her great sense of adventure and good humour is helping the whole family – not to mention the other 14 Irish people who have come over to work for Michael’s employer since – to embrace their new life. (Where else would they have been given moose meat as a present from their children’s teacher?)

Curiously, it is the youngest child, Rebecca (three) who talks constantly about their Wexford house and is forever saying, “I want to go back to our house now”, explains Barbara. “She is the only one who seems to miss the physical environment – and you would think she is the one who would have forgotten quicker.”

While the run-up to Christmas was difficult, they now look forward to the spring, the summer and completing their first full year in Canada.

“There are no regrets,” says Barbara. They are aiming to get permanent residency and then, three years after that, they can apply for citizenship.

“We would really feel it is important at this stage, after making this move, that the children would have citizenship,” she adds. Then, in years to come, they will be free to choose Canada or Ireland, or maybe somewhere else, as the place they call home.

Barbara Reidy blogs on movingtosaskatoon.wordpress.com

'It has been a great experience: she has made loads of new friends from all over the world'

Do we go or do we stay? That’s the dilemma for families of people working in global careers, where foreign postings are part of the deal. Disruption of children’s education has to be weighed up against not breaking up the family for long periods.

South-African-born Zoe Wasserman has been married for nearly 14 years, and for eight of them her husband, also from South Africa, has travelled with his job in telecoms. But after coming to Ireland in 2005, the couple decided it would be best if she and their two young sons – one born in Germany, the other in South Africa – stayed in one place for a while.

“This is now what we consider as home,” says Zoe. “My boys know more about Ireland and have Irish accents and are more at home here than anywhere in the world.”

But when their eldest son was nine her husband was offered longer assignments with his company, that could include the whole family.

“I personally find that boys at this age need their fathers, especially their discipline,” she explains. They all moved to Spain for what was originally a one-year contract. When it was extended for a year the boys chose to stay there rather than return to Ireland.

“We moved back to Ireland in the summer but before the year was up in Spain we asked the boys if they wanted to go on another assignment. They said that they would prefer that than to stay in Ireland without Daddy, so to speak.”

Currently living back in Co Laois, with the boys now aged 12 and nine, the family is preparing for a two-year stint in Saudi Arabia.

Zoe’s advice to other parents moving with children is to consult them and to keep a house routine no matter where you’re living.

“When your children are old enough to understand what you are thinking of doing, talk to them,” she says. Although such decisions are ultimately for parents to make, Zoe and her husband want their children to feel like they are being heard and that their feelings matter.

“They and you will have good days and bad days,” she adds. “As my mother always has said, ‘This too shall pass.’”

When Lisa Buckley’s husband, Gerry O’Shea, got a job in Copenhagen in November 2011, five months after being made redundant in Ireland, she continued to work here and look after their two children at home in Donabate, Co Dublin, while he returned every three to four weeks.

“It was very hard on us all though, particularly the children, so we decided to move out to join him after he was there six months,” says Lisa. “He thought it would be a great place to live as a family and to raise children.”

There was a lot of change for the girls initially, with a new location and language, moving from a house in an estate to an apartment and getting used to not having a car. Danish children don’t start school until aged six but they enrolled their five-year-old daughter, Órla, into an international school.

Órla is a worrier and friends are important to her so they thought the transition would be easier in an English-speaking school. “It also meant that she could go straight into the equivalent of senior infants. It has been a great experience for her – she has made loads of new friends, from countries all over the world.”

But their younger daughter, Dearbhla, is a very different child, “very independent and just gets on with things”. So she started in a Danish-speaking børnehaven in September.

Overall the children have adapted well, although, Lisa adds, “Órla still gets very shy when she is spoken to in Danish, and she talks a lot about her friends in Donabate.” SHELIA WAYMAN

How to make it easier for the children

Young children generally adapt well to moving abroad, particularly if they have siblings, but it is very tough for teenagers, says Trish Murphy, chair of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland.

“They will be full of resistance and resentment, which would be normal anyway, and this gets exacerbated.” Her advice to parents moving with children includes:

Consult:Involve the children in the decision to move as much as possible.

Be honest:While there are lots of positives to highlight, if you only focus on the upside, you are not giving your children space to talk about their worries and losses.

Find a confidante:Children don’t like to burden parents, so before you leave help them choose a relation, a godparent or friend’s parent, who they can keep in contact with by Skype, and with whom they can talk about how awful and hard it is, if necessary.

Bring stuff:It’s not just small children who need the comfort of cuddly toys from home, older children and adults also need familiar possessions and photographs of family and friends.

Review move:Teenagers don’t want to be treated like kids; at the same time, they have the same kind of dependency needs. Promise them you will review the move and examine options after, say, five years . . . as long as you mean it.

Have fun:Ask children what family rituals they would like to start, such as going out together for breakfast every Saturday.

Allow for settling-in blues:Children feeling miserable, having no energy, bursting into tears – anything like that during the first three months should not be taken too seriously.


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